Shaking things up (literally) in small history institutions

A couple of weeks ago, I presented about outreach and community engagement for small history institutions at the National Council on Public History’s first-ever Twitter Mini-Con, “(Re)Active Public History.” My presentation dealt with some of what I’ve discussed here in the past– mainly the important role these groups play in their towns and neighborhoods and how they can shuffle or modify existing priorities to ensure they play active and essential roles in the communities they serve.

More specifically, we considered why so many small history groups have, historically, prioritized collections-based work above other projects, how to adjust this model in the present to make more room for outreach- and community-based work, and how to involve constituents in a way that ensures and demonstrates institutional relevance. Some of the issues we covered were how to start this conversation, who to bring to the table and how to get them there, how to identify institutional priorities (and, similarly, how to identify what can be eliminated), using these self-reflective processes to build bridges between people across diverse communities, and how to make hard, self-reflective discussions part of an institution’s regular agenda.

I’m particularly grateful to the people who stayed until the end to engage in a rich and thought-provoking discussion about the realities of being a history and/or museum professional trying to do this work on the ground. I’m including our conversations here as a kind of part 3 to my two earlier blog posts (part 1part 2) about community outreach and engagement in small history institutions.

Here are the Twitter highlights from our post-presentation Q & A. I’ve written them out so they’re searchable, but you can also find them (and the rest of the presentation) here on Twitter. I edited some of the responses for the sake of clarity.

How to begin and manage a shift toward an outreach-based model when your small history institution has few staff and no $$.

Krista McKracken (@kristamccracken) asked:
Any suggestions for local history organizations that have small budgets and limited staff – but who want to start this type of shift?

Start with a retreat for board members, staff, and key volunteers. Lay out what the organization does now and then talk about what the organization needs to be doing to be truly relevant. Where are the gaps? The key here is having the hard conversations about what’s going on right now. Are there programs, activities, and/or initiatives that are done just because that’s how things have always been done? If there’s no better reason, they need to go. Also, do some research into programs held by local arts organizations, cultural organizations, and historical societies and museums. Look at any cutting-edge community-building material being talked about at AASLH and NCPH. See if you can test-drive an initiative already in place elsewhere.

How can small history organizations use this process to interrogate a multitude of pervasive and interconnected -isms:

Dr. Rachel Boyle (@raboyl) asked:
How about mostly-white historical organizations in mostly-white communities? Do you have insight on how an organization that was built to protect and support dominant narratives can transition into guiding a white community to deal with its race/class/gender issues?

I think it depends on whether or not they WANT to do this work. They have to be willing to have hard conversations about white complicity and oppression and debunk the pioneer narratives so many of them rest on. And they need to be able to talk about that publicly in a productive way. If they aren’t willing– this is why other avenues for local history work are SO IMPORTANT. Local history happens everywhere. it’s not owned by white-dominated historical societies and museums. Maybe it’s time for a new model where these spaces have a place at the table.

Where can we find work in small history groups who DO put communities first?

Lacey Wilson (@LaceyWilson4) asked:
For students or professionals who are interested in this community organizing public history work, where can we look to find these kinds of work opportunities? The answer may be to make these opportunities at your institution but for those who are looking outward?

They’re out there in the history world, though not super common yet. I’d start with history organizations with a track record of work in this wheelhouse– maybe find them by looking at who’s won awards. This could be limiting, but it’d be a place to start. For example, I found the Cambridge Historical Society’s “Housing for All” program through the American Association for State and Local History’s awards listings. I found out about the Civil Rights Room and Civil Rights and a Civil Society program at the Nashville Public Library in the same way, I think. ALSO, there’s a lot of history-adjacent work happening in other cultural organizations. Arts groups seem to be leading the way here.

Why understanding the history of these small history organizations is important:

We should all look at what the small history organizations in our town or neighborhoods have done and are doing now. There’s a long and little-understood history of the impact these groups have had on public policy and the built environment. They’ve done a lot to shape the places where we live and work and it’s important to watch what they advocate for. They’ve always had a lot of power. It’s vital that we pay attention to how they use it. (Full disclosure: my research deals with the history of small history institutions in metropolitan Chicago.)

Thanks again to everyone who came to my session and shared their thoughts about outreach and small history organizations. And thanks to NCPH for organizing the mini-con and for thinking creatively about new ways we can engage with each other using digital platforms.

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